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L.A. Beat

Drum Beat #23— how to read drum tablature

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What is drum music and how do I play it or read it?  This is a question I hear all of the time. It is worth a discussion as it is very valuable to have a great understanding of drum music as well as being able to play it. I believe there are two kinds of drum music. Both require a understanding of music notation and what the symbols and notations mean when on a chart or piece of music. There is what is called drum tablature and music you read to play with a big band most commonly called charts. Drum tablature is used when learning beats, rudiments, stick control or anything related to learning technical playing aspects of drumming. Big band is music that shows the melody line the band is playing or strict sticking patterns for various sections of music or particular pieces of music. In this article I will describe drum tablature and then provide some excellent links for chart reading and basic musical notation information. Enjoy the material and hopefully when you are done you will have a better understanding of what drum music is.
First, there are some basic concepts of written music in general you will need to learn or already have a grasp of in order to fully understand drum tabs.  This is one of the better reference places which you can refer to often when needed. Again, before you even start with reading any drum music you must have an understanding of this.

Second, drum tablature is a method of writing music that enables the translation of different beats and techniques.
It basically is the technical translation of physical drumming on the set on paper.  It is written most of the time on the music staff.
The lines of the staff are different drums. The staff does not have to be used but it seems to translate better that way.
Here are a few examples of written drum "tabs" which I will describe below.


              | ====== 4x ====== |
 Count:| 1   2  a3   4  a |
  Ride:  | x---x--xx---x—x |
    Hh:   | ----x-------x----- |
 Count: 1e+a2e+a3e+a4e+a | 1e+a2e+a3e+a4e+a |
  Snar: |  -----o-----------o----- | ------o-----------o----- |
Tom2:| -------------------------- | --------------------------|
   BD1:| o-----------o-o--------- | o-o--------o-o---------|

 Count:| 1e+ 2 + 3e+ 4 +  | 1e+ 2 + 3e+ 4 +  |
     Ride:| x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-| x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x- | 
   Cym:  | ---------------- ---| X------------------|
  Tom1:| oo---------------  | oo----------------|
  Tom2:|- --------oo------- | ---------oo------ |
   SnD:  | ------o-----------  | ------------------- |
   BD1:  | o-------o--------- | o-------o--------- |

rlrr lrll rlrr lrll lrll rlrr lrll rlrr rllr lrrl rllr lrrl - counted as a 16th note rhythm or 1e+a.

Many different ways of writing drum tab exist.

There are the basics of notation but different drummers will write the tempo in or use different symbols to represent different drums.  Just remember to learn what each tabs symbols represent and you will be good to go.  Every drum tab should have a symbol reference if there is something unique or complicated about it.
The first line of a drum tab is the count that is being used.  It will show you whether it is a quarter note, or 16th noterhythm for example. The second line is the instrument that you will be using as the beat setter.  It could be the hi-hat or ride cymbal or maybe a tom if the beat is a tom  based beat. The third line is a crash cymbal.
The fourth line is tom. If there are other toms being used then they will follow the first tom line.  Then comes the snare drum followed by the bass drum.  It is pretty simple and translates beats easily.

Drum tabs will use each line with a mark that corresponds to the beat setter line and tells you where to put the drums with the beat setter to create the beat.  I provided three examples to look at that show how it looks on paper.  Use your legs or a table top and practice the beats that are shown.  You will see that you will soon understand the way a drum tab works.
The sticking tab, shown last,  is just a basic way to write sticking combinations for rudiments or practice.  It is easy and makes sense.  I showed it because it is common and used all of the time for both sticking and foot combinations for double bass drumming.
This is a very light explanation of drum tabs.  What you can get from this information is the basic understanding of the concepts for writing and reading drum tabs that will help you be able to interpret drum tabs quickly and easily. It will help in dissecting the many drum tabs that exist.
For chart reading I believe it is best described by a man named Steve Fidyk here:

I really like his description and the way he breaks it down.
There is not one way to learn all of this material.  Ask questions, learn from your teacher and although it is boring for most, take the time to learn the ins and outs of drum music. If you understand the fundamentals of drum music reading in all aspects you open yourself to many avenues of playing that otherwise would be closed.
In summary for drum music, start out by learning the basics of music notation.  This is like learning a language.  
Learn all the symbols and notations and what they mean.  This will help you understand what others are saying at rehearsal and gives you a basic platform to communicate musically with others. Next move onto drum tabs.
Once you have gained an understanding of notation and tabs move onto charts and have some fun with drum music.

— by Stanley Jackson, Special To L.A. Beat
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